When she was named as the new Health chief early this year, Esparanza Cabral was introduced to a shocking figure on HIV-AIDS infection in the Philippines.
She learned that the rate at which the virus is spreading is ten times faster than almost two decades ago. Equally shocking was the most common victims of the sickness: economically-productive individuals, or simply those belonging to the country’s workforce.
This is coupled with the discovery by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) that only 6,368 of companies – 26 percent or just a quarter – have HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention policies, making laborers more susceptible to the disease.
This has pushed the Health and Labor departments to coordinate with labor groups like the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) in undoing, much less easing, the damage being wrought by HIV-AIDS on the business and labor sectors.
“It is important that labor organizations, corporations, business owners, and all of us get together to prevent the spread of the killer and dreaded HIV-AIDS,” Cabral said during a TUCP-organized press briefing on Friday.
Cabral said the government’s partnership with the private sector needs to be “strengthened” to protect the 35 million Filipinos in the workforce.
A new department order is in the works to trim down the rate of AIDS infection in the Philippines for the next few years by ensuring compliance from the private business sector.
The order – an update of an earlier one made more than a decade ago – seeks to implement stricter measures in requiring companies to craft their own anti-AIDS policies. Rules on whether sanctions could be imposed on non-compliant private firms have yet to be finalized.
Labor Assistant Secretary Teresa Soriano told GMANews.TV that they would “do their best” to have the order approved and implemented come the National HIV/AIDS Summit on April 12.
“Standards should be complied with. If it’s a department order there should be compliance,” she said, stressing, however, that proper consultations with employers and labor unions would first have to be conducted before approving the order.
Cabral, who took over the Department of Health (DOH) post last January, admitted that past administrations had been laid back in battling the killer infection.
“Sabi nila, ‘Kalimutan muna natin ang problema natin dito dahil hindi pa naman malala,’ (They used to say, ‘Let’s not focus too much attention on AIDS because the situation is not yet too serious’),” Cabral said.
But the tides have changed nowadays, according to Cabral. Latest data from the Philippine National AIDS Council show that the “doubling time” of AIDS cases in 2009 was pegged at one year.
As of January this year, there have been 4,400 documented cases of HIV-AIDS infections in the country since the government started tracking its spread in 1984.
The health department has come under fire, especially from the Catholic Church, for its controversial free-condom campaign and the support that the national government has been extending to the program.
Just last year, the government distributed around 2 million pieces of condoms, and at P3.30 a piece that meant around P7 million was shelled out for the campaign, Cabral said.
She stressed that AIDS prevention is still better than spending money to medicate infected individuals.
“If an HIV positive worker used to earn, say, P200,000 a year, that’s what he would be losing if he stops working. Plus, he could spend as much as 200,000 for the medications,” Cabral explained.
“But if that worker just regularly uses condom, say 10 times a month, that would mean he would only be spending around P33 a month,” she added.
But despite hitting hard on the labor sector, AIDS infections are not industry-specific, the DOLE clarified.
DOLE director Tess Cucueco even went as far as saying that contrary to recent reports, the call center industry is equally at risk of suffering from AIDS as any other industry.
“It’s unfair to label it on call centers … It’s not because of your call center work. It depends on behavior. If they have this risky behavior you will always be at risk of having HIV-AIDS,” said Cucueco.
She said the susceptibility to HIV-AIDS of people, especially those in the workforce, ultimately depends on their lifestyle.
“Iba na kasi ang lifestyle ng young workers. After work, may drinking pa and other things (Young workers behave differently these days. After work, they drink and do other things),” said Cucueco.
The HIV-AIDS Summit will be held at the Manila Diamond Hotel and will be the venue for various sectors to discuss the current state of AIDS awareness and prevention in the Philippines. -KBK, GMANews.TV